On December 5, 1955, just days after Rosa Park's historic arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta watched tensely from their living room window as the first moments of the Montomery Bus Boycott unfolded. Dr. King recounts those anxious early minutes in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, part of our King Legacy Series:
My wife and i awoke earlier than usual on Monday morning. We were up and fully dressed by five-thirty. The day for the protest had arrived, and we were determined to see the first act of this unfolding drama. I was still saying that if we could get 60 percent cooperation the venture would be a success.
Fortunately, a bus stop was just five feet from our house. This meant that we could observe the opening stages from our front window. The first bus was to pass around six o’clock. And so we waited through an interminable half hour. I was in the kitchen drinking my coffee when I heard Coretta cry, “Martin, Martin, come quickly!” I put down my cup and ran toward the living room. As I approached the front window Coretta pointed joyfully to a slowly moving bus: “Darling, it’s empty!” I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew that the South Jackson line, which ran past our house, carried more Negro passengers than any other line in Montgomery, and that this first bus was usually filled with domestic workers going to their jobs. Would all of the other buses follow the pattern that had been set by the first? Eagerly we waited for the next bus. In fifteen minutes it rolled down the street, and, like the first, it was empty. A third bus appeared, and it too was empty of all but two white passengers.
I jumped in my car and for almost an hour I cruised down every major street and examined every passing bus. During this hour, at the peak of the morning traffic, I saw no more than eight Negro passengers riding the buses. By this time I was jubilant. Instead of the 60 percent cooperation we had hoped for, it was becoming apparent that we had reached almost 100 percent. A miracle had taken place. The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.
More than a half century later, it's easy to forget the raw, simple moments like these, how the events that shape a full historical narrative compress into simple phrases in our textbooks. In reality, the Montomery Bus Boycott was long in the making, and lasted almost a year before the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a lower court ruling to integrate the Montgomery bus system, a stark reversal of its 1892 decision Plessy v. Ferguson allowing for segregation on public transit. And it was another five weeks before the Supreme Court's order was implemented and the boycott officially called off. With that in mind, we ask that you consider those small, human moments, the less visible constructs of history, as we present a timeline of the larger, more cumulative ones:
Timeline of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
March 1954 - The Women's Political Council (WPC) meets with Montgomery mayor W. A. Gayle to outline their recommended changes for the Montgomery bus system.
March 2, 1955 - Claudette Colvin arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman.
October 21, 1955 - Mary Louise Smith arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman.
December 1, 1955 - Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
December 2, 1955 - The WPC calls for a one-day bus boycott on December 5.
December 5, 1955 - Instead of the expected 60% turnout, an estimated 90%-100% of the black community in Montgomery choose to participate in the boycott. Black leaders meet to dicuss the possibility of extending the boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) is created at this meeting, and Dr. King elected its president. The MIA votes to extend the boycott.
December 8, 1955 - The MIA issues a formal list of demands. The city refuses to comply.
December 13, 1955 - The MIA implements a carpool system to support citizens taking part in the boycott.
January 30, 1956 - Dr. King's home is bombed. In response, Dr. King calls for peaceful protest rather than violent action.
February 1, 1956 - E. D. Nixon's home is bombed.
February 21, 1956 - Over 80 boycott leaders are indicted by the city under Alabama's anti-conspiracy laws.
March 19, 1956 - Dr. King is indicted as a leader of the boycott and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail.
June 5, 1956 - A federal district court rules that bus segregation is unconstitutional.
November 13, 1956 - The Supreme Court upholds the district court ruling, and strikes down laws requiring racial segregation on buses. The MIA resolves to end the boycott only when the order to desegregate is officially implemented.
December 20, 1956 - The Supreme Court's orders of injuction against segregation on city buses are delivered to the Montgomery City Hall.
December 21, 1956 - Montgomery's buses are officially desegregated. The MIA ends the boycott.
Further reading on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis
The King Legacy Series, a partnership between the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Beacon Press